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Montgomery v. Brown

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

February 1, 2017

RICHARD BROWN, Superintendent, Respondent.


          Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge

         Christopher Montgomery seeks habeas corpus relief. Having considered pleadings and the expanded record, the Court finds for the reasons explained in this Entry that the habeas petition must be denied and this action dismissed with prejudice. In addition, the Court finds that a certificate of appealability should not issue.


         Montgomery is serving the executed portion of sentences imposed following his convictions for Murder and for Neglect of a Dependent. These convictions arose from the murder and mistreatment of four-year-old Elijah Simpson, the son of Montgomery's girlfriend Courtney Simpson, during the early morning hours of March 30, 2007. The convictions were affirmed on appeal in Montgomery v. State, 2008 WL 5062780 (Ind.Ct.App. Dec. 2, 2008), trans. denied. A subsequent and limited direct appeal (sometimes hereafter “the second direct appeal”) resulted in the appellate court concluding, in part, that the exclusion of certain evidence at trial was the proper ruling. Montgomery v. State, 21 N.E.3d 846 (Ind.Ct.App. Nov. 21, 2014)(“The issues on appeal are limited to issues related to the introduction of 404(b) evidence. . . . The trial court recognized that the sole issue at trial was who inflicted the blunt force trauma that killed Elijah and found that evidence of Courtney's pattern of abuse of Elijah was not admissible to show that she committed the offenses unless Montgomery could show that Elijah's death was caused by a pattern of abuse. He failed to do so, and indeed evidence was presented that he confessed to detectives that he threw Elijah to the ground in a manner consistent with the injury causing death.”).

         Applicable Law

         Montgomery now seeks relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). This statute authorizes a district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to a state court judgment “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” Id. The scope of the Great Writ is limited because a viable habeas claim pursuant to § 2254(a) necessarily precludes a claim which is not based on alleged noncompliance with federal law. See Wilson v. Corcoran, 131 S.Ct. 13, 16 (2010) (“But it is only noncompliance with federal law that renders a State's criminal judgment susceptible to collateral attack in the federal courts.”). His petition is governed by provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 336 (1997).

         “[U]nder AEDPA, federal courts do not independently analyze the petitioner's claims; federal courts are limited to reviewing the relevant state court ruling on the claims.” Rever v. Acevedo, 590 F.3d 533, 536 (7th Cir. 2010). As one court has explained, “[i]t is this Court's obligation to focus “on the state court decision that previously addressed the claims rather than the petitioner's freestanding claims themselves.” McLee v. Angelone, 967 F.Supp. 152, 156 (E.D.Va. 1997). “Under the current regime governing federal habeas corpus for state prison inmates, the inmate must show, so far as bears on this case, that the state court which convicted him unreasonably applied a federal doctrine declared by the United States Supreme Court.” Redmond v. Kingston, 240 F.3d 590 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000); Morgan v. Krenke, 232 F.3d 562 (7th Cir. 2000)). “A state-court decision involves an unreasonable application of this Court's clearly established precedents if the state court applies this Court's precedents to the facts in an objectively unreasonable manner.” Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 131, 141 (2005) (internal citations omitted). “The habeas applicant has the burden of proof to show that the application of federal law was unreasonable.” Harding v. Sternes, 380 F.3d 1034, 1043 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 25 (2002)).

         “The AEDPA's standard is intentionally ‘difficult for Petitioner to meet.'” Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (per curiam) (quoting White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1702 (2014); Metrish v. Lancaster, 133 S.Ct. 1781, 1786 (2013)). “As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).


         The first step under § 2254(d)(1) is “to identify the ‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States' that governs the habeas petitioner's claims.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 133 S.Ct. 1446, 1449 (2013) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. at 412; Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009)).

         Montgomery's first habeas claim is his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence as to the murder conviction. The controlling federal law on this subject is the “rigorous” standard set forth in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979): “evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the State, is sufficient to support a conviction so long as any rational trier of fact could find the essential elements of the offense to have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jones v. Butler, 778 F.3d 575, 581 (7th Cir. 2015). Therefore, “[f]ederal review of these claims . . . turns on whether the state court provided fair process and engaged in reasoned, good-faith decisionmaking when applying Jackson's ‘no rational trier of fact' test.” Gomez v. Acevedo, 106 F.3d 192, 199 (7th Cir. 1999).

         The Indiana Court of Appeals addressed this claim in Montgomery's direct appeal, and in doing so first explained its standard:

When considering a challenge to the sufficiency of evidence, we neither reweigh the evidence nor judge witness credibility. McHenry v. State, 820 N.E.2d 124 (Ind. 2005). This review “respects ‘the [fact-finder]'s exclusive province to weigh conflicting evidence.'” Id. at 126 (quoting Alkhalidi v. State, 753 N.E.2d 625, 627 (Ind. 2001)). Considering only the probative evidence and reasonable inferences supporting the verdict, we must affirm “‘if the probative evidence and reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence could have allowed a reasonable trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'” McHenry v. State, 820 N.E.2d at 126 (quoting Tobar v. State, 740 N.E.2d 109, 111-12 (Ind. 2000)).

Montgomery v. State, 899 N.E.2d 760, *2 (Ind.Ct.App. 2008). The Indiana Court of Appeals then summarized the evidence which ...

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